An open letter to the La Trobe NTEU leadership
Students at Latrobe University in Melbourne have defied threats of expulsion and continued their campaign against proposed cuts to the Humanities faculty. They will be proceeding with another planned protest on Sunday which will coincide with the University’s Open Day. Below Socialist Party student club members respond to comments made by leaders of the La Trobe Branch of the NTEU.
We write in response to a number of public comments made by officials of the La Trobe Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) in regards to the campaign against the cuts to the Humanities and Social Sciences faculty.
As you are well aware the planned cuts will result in hundreds of subjects being slashed, entire areas of study being abolished and at least 41 job losses. This is of major concern to both staff and students alike.
Given that we have joint interests in opposing the cuts, and attacks on public education more generally, we have been striving to bring students and staff together in a united campaign. This however has been made difficult due to the adversarial comments and actions of the NTEU La Trobe Branch leadership.
In a letter to students on August 22 Branch President, Virginia Mansel Lees, claims “certain protest activities could put the health and safety of NTEU members at risk due to the demonstrated potential for conflict between security guards and students. In particular, we wish to strongly discourage occupation of staff work areas.”
In a university environment students have limited social weight. Unlike staff we do not have the ability to stop work to put pressure on management. Protests and occupations have historically been important tactics used by students to impact on university administrations in a meaningful way. Understanding this we would expect any progressive union leadership to support student protests and occupations against cuts and not call for them to be stopped.
However, far from supporting us you have effectively joined forces with the University administration by denouncing our previous actions as ‘violent’. This is far from the truth.
The protests to date have definitely been enthusiastic and determined but there has been no violence coming from students. In contrast it is the University management who have hired thuggish security guards to bully and intimidate students – including using plain clothed security to spy on student meetings. Instead of highlighting this fact, the NTEU leadership has preferred to tow management’s line without offering any evidence to support such claims. The effect of your comments has been to sow division and confusion between students and staff.
While we do not believe that student action poses any threat to your members’ health and safety, we certainly encourage you to suggest that they stop work during any protests and occupations. It is the aggressiveness of the hired security guards that demonstrates a legitimate threat to the safety of both staff and students.
As you know this can be done legally under Section 74 of the OH&S Act when there is an ‘immediate risk’. Any far sighted union leadership would see the student protests as a useful auxiliary as it would mean that a stop work could be engaged in legally. This is an example of how students and staff could work together to beat back the cuts.
The main reason why students have had to lead this campaign is because the NTEU leaders have failed to outline a viable strategy to win. Not only have you consistently stated that you think there is justification for some of the cuts, but you have actually assisted management by going around and asking your members if they would take ‘voluntary redundancies’.
These are not your jobs to sell away. These jobs and their associated conditions were won through the collective struggle of the union movement alongside student movements. They should be protected for all current and future academics and students. It is also not just these jobs that you should be protecting, but public education more generally.
University management desperately want to push through these cuts and they have a clear strategy to do so. They are trying to neutralise the NTEU and student union leaders by getting them ‘around the consultation table’. At the same time they are trying to clamp down on student protest activity. They want to divide the movement long enough to push through their cuts through.
What the administration fear the most is the NTEU and the student union recognising this and actively working to cut across their divide and rule tactics. On the basis of this it would be much better if you proposed joint staff and student action, rather than playing management’s game.
The campaign would carry much more weight if the NTEU was actively involved with serious participation from staff. In the absence of this students have been forced to take the lead and engage in occupations and protests. For this we should be congratulated not criticised.
The fight at La Trobe is currently the front line in the battle to defend public education. This is why the threats from University management have been so severe. If we can push back the cuts here it would send a strong message to other university administrations that have similar plans. It would also be a blow to the neo-liberal funding model of the federal government which is the main driver behind the push for cuts at a campus level.
We urge you to stop attacking the student led campaign and to instead unite with students in action. We call on NTEU members at La Trobe to attend the Open Day protest on Sunday as a step towards building a joint staff and students strike. This would be the best way to get management to back down. If we refuse to let management divide us we can still win. The responsibility for this, however, lies with you.
Kirk Leonard & Chris Dite
On behalf of the Socialist Party student club at La Trobe